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COLT MCCOY DIDN'T get the license plate of the Kansas State linebacker who on Nov.�11 single-handedly altered the trajectory of the Longhorns' 2006 season. "It wasn't a cheap shot," says McCoy, the Texas quarterback and Big�12 Offensive Freshman of the Year. "He just hit me right." The hard tackle caused nerve damage in the passer's neck, knocking him out of the game in the first quarter and setting up the Longhorns for a 45-42 loss. It was the Horns' second defeat of the season, which took them out of the national title picture and underlined McCoy's importance to the team.
The untested successor to Vince Young, McCoy didn't show much in his first big game, a 24-7 loss to Ohio State on Sept.�9, in large part because his coaches reined him in. But once he was cut loose, the kid tore up opposing secondaries; he finished with 2,570 passing yards and 29 touchdowns (tying the NCAA mark for a freshman). He spent the off-season intensively rehabbing his injured wing and in preseason practice has never looked better.
McCoy will be most effective if Texas can reignite a running game that flagged in '06. Though they fielded one of most talented lines in the nation, the Horns averaged less than four yards a carry in six of their last eight games, and the team's streak of 1,000-yard rushers ended at 11 seasons. This year the line must replace both guards and the center, and the feature back is Jamaal Charles, a huge talent who averaged 7.4 yards a carry as a freshman for the national champs in '05. Last season, however, he started only one game, taking a backseat to senior Selvin Young, who played tougher and fumbled less.
True, Young and Charles combined for 1,422 yards and 14 TDs, but the offense was incapable of breaking long runs. The dropoff from '05 was due, in part, to the coaches' decision to stick with the shotgun-based, zone-read option offense that Vince Young directed with such virtuosity. While McCoy is a more accurate passer than his predecessor, he is not the running threat Young was. Still, the Longhorns will stick with their beloved zone-read and hope that the line can gel quickly.
Another problem area is the secondary. Despite sending three defensive backs to the NFL ( Michael Griffin and Aaron Ross were the 19th and 20th picks, respectively), Texas ranked 99th in the nation in pass defense in '06. Conservative last season under co-coordinator Gene Chizik (now the coach at Iowa State), Texas will blitz more under longtime co-coordinator Duane Akina, who will call defenses for the first time in '07. Akina, who is also the secondary coach, will work with a talented but unproven batch of backs.
The team's early schedule allows for a gentle learning curve: Three of the Longhorns' first four opponents are Arkansas State, Central Florida and Rice. The fourth, TCU on Sept.�8 in Austin, is the most intriguing of Texas's nonconference foes. The Horned Frogs would love to be this year's Boise State, and an upset of their old Southwest Conference nemesis would put them on track to bust the BCS. "They're going to be all kind of fired up," McCoy says. "That game is their Super Bowl."
But the Longhorns have lofty aspirations of their own.